Director: Costa-Gavras
Screenplay: Jorge Semprún (based on the novel by Vasilis Vasilikos)
Stars: Yves Montand (The Deputy), Irene Papas (Helene, the Deputy's wife), Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Examining Magistrate), Jacques Perrin (Photojournalist), Charles Denner (Manuel), François Périer (Public Prosecutor), Pierre Dux (The General), Georges Géret (Nick), Bernard Fresson (Matt), Marcel Bozzuffi (Vago), Julien Guiomar (The Colonel), Magali Noël (Nick's Sister), Renato Salvatori (Yago)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1969
Country: France / Algeria
Z Criterion Collection DVD
ZBy 1969, French New Wave pioneer and political iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard was in full Marxist rage, railing against the hegemonic oppression of Hollywood narrative and its “invisible style” and feverishly putting his theories into action with a series of increasingly fragmented political anti-fantasies. Meanwhile, Spanish master Luis Buñuel was returning to his roots in surrealism, and Italian provocateur Michelangelo Antonio was simultaneously enthralling and infuriating audiences with his ambiguous meditations on the unknowability of pretty much everything. The editors of the French journal Cahiers du cinema were self-consciously adopting a Marxist mindset that dictated an emphasis on the deconstruction of mainstream cinema both narratively and stylistically. In short, European art cinema was dominated by politically minded filmmakers and critics who were intent on staking their careers and their messages on anti-Hollywood aesthetics and narrative devices.

And then there was Costa-Gavras. A young Greek expatriate who studied film in France and had only two features under his belt, Costa-Gavras shook the cinematic world with Z, a relentless political thriller that meshes a clear ideological agenda with conventional Hollywood theatrics (it’s no wonder that Pauline Kael, ever the foe of arty European pretension, loved it). Based on the novel by fellow Greek expatriate Vasilis Vasilikos and scripted by the Spanish Marxist Jorge Semprún, it tells a thinly fictionalized version of the 1963 assassination of leftwing Greek politician and peace advocate Gregoris Lambrakis. Unlike many filmmakers who might hide behind a rhetoric of fictionalization, Costa-Gavras and Semprún fully embrace their source material, giving us a title card in the opening minutes assuring us that any similarities to actual people and events is not coincidental, but entirely intentional, a fact underscored by their signing their names beneath the proclamation.

Granted, the country in which Z takes place is never named and most of the characters also go nameless, which gives the film an open quality that helps explain why American viewers, embroiled in their own cultural upheaval and assassination-induced paranoia, flocked to it. Yet, the film still functions as astute, alarming commentary on what happened in Greece in the early 1960s because the events in the film so closely and obviously parallel the historical record. Yves Montand, who brings a heavy dose of star quality even though he is on screen for less than 15 minutes, plays the Lambrakis character who arrives in the country for a peace rally and is assaulted in front of hundreds of demonstrators and dozens of police who stand by idly. The manner in which he is assaulted--hit over the head with a club by a pair of thugs who zoom by in a three-wheeler--would be utterly absurd if it weren’t absolutely true to what happened to Lambrakis.

After he dies, there is an investigation headed by the Magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a stern man of great seriousness whose dark glasses keep us from him emotionally while also suggesting his essentially apolitical nature. He is a professional who wants to get to the truth, yet he is surrounded by those who want to manipulate his inquiry to their own political ends, especially the General (Pierre Dux), a high-ranking military officer who clearly played a role in the assassination. The flames are fanned by an enterprising journalist (played by co-producer Jacques Perrin) who knows a good story and is able to identify many of the accomplices and witnesses.

Using the investigation as the film’s narrative backbone and audience lure, Costa-Gavras takes us through the dizzying--at times infuriating, at times nearly surreal--process of ferreting out the truth in a politically charged cover-up that, despite its historical specificity, is most powerfully seen as an indictment of the general abuse of power that comes under any form of fascism. Propelled by the jaunty, sometimes comically overstated music score compiled out of previously recorded tracks by Mikis Theodorakis (a political foe of the ruling dictatorship who was then under house arrest in Greece) and documentary-like cinematography by Raoul Coutard (a regular Godard collaborator), Z is a relentlessly fast-paced mystery that has not a single wasted second; Costa-Gavras tears us from one scene to the next with little padding in-between. This approach creates a sense of emotional urgency that underscores the imperative of the film’s clear ideological agenda, as Costa-Gavras draws a clear divide between the well-meaning leftists and the power-hungry rightists, with those trapped in the middle eventually coming to realize that they must take sides. Hence, the film’s turning point is when the Magistrate quite bluntly stops referring to the assassination as “the incident” and starts calling it “the murder,” at which point he becomes the film’s crusading hero.

Of course, such an approach is not without its critics, especially European leftists who would ostensibly be enthralled by an antifascist thriller that celebrates the need for truth. Yet, Costa-Gavras’s approach of weaving politics into traditional narrative devices (which drew on politicized Hollywood thrillers of the 1940s and was reminiscent of the works by contemporary European filmmakers like Gillo Pontecorvo and Francesco Rosi) fell short of some critics’ expectations, particularly those who saw the future of political filmmaking in the lens of Godard and Jean-Paul Gorin’s Dziga Vertov collective. In their oft-cited polemic “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” which was originally published in Cahiers du cinéma in 1969, editors Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni cited Z as their main example of films “which have explicitly political content … but which do not effectively criticize the ideological systems in which they are embedded because they unquestionably adopt its language and imagery.” For Comolli and Narboni, effective ideological criticism must be both thematic and formal in nature, but it seems to me that Z is ultimate proof that the master’s language can be used against him: a film can be simultaneously subversive and commercial and all the better for it.

Z Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.66:1
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
  • Audio commentary featuring film historian Peter Cowie
  • Video interview with Costa-Gavras
  • Video interview with Raoul Coutard
  • Archival interviews with Costa-Gavras; producer-actor Jacques Perrin; actors Pierre Dux, Yves Montand, Irène Papas, and Jean-Louis Trintignant; and Vassilis Vassilikos, author of the book Z
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic Armond White
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateOctober 26, 2009

    Criterion’s new DVD of Z is a welcome replacement to the 2002 Fox Lorber disc, which, while in anamorphic widescreen, was an unconverted PAL transfer. Criterion’s new, digitally restored high-def transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive and supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard. The resulting image is duly impressive, with good detail and color that effectively represents the look of Eastmancolor stock in the late 1960s. Digital restoration has left the image with no signs of dirt or age, giving us the impression of seeing the film as it looked during its debut. The clean monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the original 35mm optical track prints and digitally restored.
    Film historian Peter Cowie has done so many audio commentary tracks for the Criterion Collection that I have lost count, but it’s no wonder they keep going back to him because he offers such an organized wealth of detailed insight. During Z he discusses the film’s history and political background and offers plenty of astute analysis of the film itself, which makes the film feel all the more groundbreaking. The disc also offers two new video interviews with director Costa-Gavras (20 min.) and cinematographer Raoul Coutard (10 min.), both of whom offer intriguing reminiscences about the film’s production and reception. From the archives Criterion has dug up French television interviews with Costa-Gavras; producer-actor Jacques Perrin; actors Pierre Dux, Yves Montand, Irène Papas, and Jean-Louis Trintignant; and Vassilis Vassilikos, who wrote the book on which Z is based. The disc is rounded out with an original theatrical trailer and an essay by the always irascible Armond White.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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